Playwright Terrence McNally has been taken by the new plague that is creating a global pandemic.
McNally suffered from chronic inflammatory lung disease and was a lung cancer survivor.
McNally was born in St. Petersburg, Florida and grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas. His parents were both native New Yorkers and took him on trips there to see Broadway plays and musicals.
He is simply one of the best contemporary playwrights, an absolute favorite of mine. He wrote over 30 plays, 10 musicals, four operas, and four screenplays, including the hilarious It’s Only A Play, and the touching Frankie And Johnny In The Clair de Lune. In 1993, he won a Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical for Kiss Of The Spider Woman, Best Play. He won another Tony for Love! Valour! Compassion! (1995), Master Class (1996), and Best Book of a Musical for Ragtime (1998). He was nominated for two other Tonys for The Full Monty (1997) and The Visit (2015) and received a special Tony Award Lifetime Achievement last spring. In 1990, McNally won an Emmy Award for Andre’s Mother, a drama about a woman trying to cope with her son’s death from AIDS. A year later, another AIDS-related play, Lips Together, Teeth Apart was produced on Broadway with Christine Baranski, Swoosie Kurtz, Nathan Lane and Anthony Heald. Lane also starred in McNally’s The Lisbon Traviata a sad comedy about an opera queen.
Leaves behind a husband, theater producer Tom Kirdahy.
McNally spoke about his longtime smoking habit. He smoked three packs a day when he was 40 years old, but he eventually quit. And he thought that after 20 years of not smoking, he had dodged the lung cancer bullet. But he was diagnosed when he was 60. At the time McNally wrote:
“I’m dealing with lung cancer, so every day is a treat and a blessing. My father died of lung cancer, and it used to be a diagnosis of lung cancer meant you were dead in six months. Now here I am 20 years later, managing it.“
McNally received his diagnosis shortly after meeting his future husband. Kirdahy:
“My husband’s health and well-being has become the most important thing to me. I’m not sure I knew I was capable of that feeling prior to this relationship. I learned that the words ‘Till death do us part’ meant more to me than I ever thought they could. That love can be that intense. The commitment to another person’s well-being has been the greatest honor. Terrence is cancer-free and very healthy today, and that means everything to me. I didn’t know I was capable of loving someone so deeply. That I would ever get to experience that feeling. I’ve learned that it’s real. That the intensity and longevity and joy of love are real.“
In the end, it wasn’t cancer that got him.
He was irreplaceable.
He often wrote gay-themed works. The Ritz, a farce won Rita Moreno won a Tony Award for her performance as Googie Gomez in the 1975 Broadway production, which she reprised in the 1976 film version directed by Richard Lester, the prefect director for this piece. The Ritz takes plane in a Manhattan bathhouse.
Love! Valour! Compassion! owes a lot to the works of Anton Chekhov, and to films like Jean Renoir‘s Rules Of The Game (1939), Ingmar Bergman‘s Smiles Of A Summer Night (1955), Woody Allen‘s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982), and Lawrence Kasdan‘s The Big Chill (1983); all of them about a group of friends gathering during the summer, a stranger upsets the dynamics of the group, people make love.
It is structured like a rather old fashioned three-act play, made fresh by the fact that all the characters are gay. They gather in July and again at the end of summer. In Act One, the characters are introduced and their problems are established. Act Two brings conflict and crisis. Act Three, truth is revealed and there is resolution; some of their relationships dissolve and some strengthen, and new ones are formed.
It is all very conventional; new ground is not broken. But, the specter of HIV/AIDS hangs over the story, which is one of the ways it makes it so different than Mart Crowley‘s The Boys In The Band (1970), its spiritual cousin (it won a Tony on the same night as McNally’s Life Time Achievent award). Some of the characters are on their best behavior and others behave badly, and at the bittersweet ending, it is revealed who will die, who will live, who will live happily and who will be sorrowful and sorry. It is all sort of traditional.
Yet, Love! Valour! Compassion! is dynamic and penetrating. It is all about the characters and dialogue, filled with excellent performances.
The great Joe Mantello, directed the recent Broadway revival of The Boys In The Band, directed the original Off-Broadway production of Love! Valour! Compassion! in 1994, and when it transferred to Broadway the next year, and here he makes his film directing debut. He is more focused on performances than visual flourishes, although it is a handsome movie. It is also touching record of gay life during second decade of the plague, but it also comes across as universal. That is its strength, I think.
At the start, the narrator, Gregory, a famous choreographer, played by Stephen Bogardus, gives a tour of his rambling old lakeside home. He’s proud of the architecture and the furnishings, saying: “I hope you appreciate the details“. Gregory lives there with his blind lover Bobby, played by Justin Kirk. Their guests include the caustic British composer John Jeckyll, played by the always excellent John Glover, and John’s new boyfriend Ramon (Randy Becker), who is a Latin hunk. There is also a Musical Theatre queen, Buzz (Jason Alexander); and a couple, Perry (Stephen Spinella) and Arthur (John Benjamin Hickey), who are celebrating their 14th anniversary.
Ramon becomes the catalyst for the drama. In an early scene, he encounters the blind Bobby feeling a tree, and then quietly puts himself in Bobby’s way. Soon the two of them are grappling in the kitchen at night, and when Bobby confesses his infidelity to Gregory, their relationship is put into turmoil. Ramon continues to find trouble, although he is not a bad person, just young and more concerned with pleasure than commitment.
John’s and Ramon’s relationship is only about sex; John is a bitter misogynist who likes to be apart from others, smoking cigarettes and brooding. In the second part, his twin, James, arrives to join the group. Both characters are played by Glover, who won a Tony Award for his dual role on Broadway and gives the two best performances in the film. Both Jeckyll brothers are so perfectly acted that we easily see them individuals, even in their scenes together.
James is sweet, the twin that one everyone likes. John is bitter and caustic. John tells James: “You got the good soul, I got the bad one”. Later, he asks: “What’s the secret of unconditional love? I’m not going to let you die with it”. It’s Alexander’s Buzz who finds and shares that secret, and the film’s sweetest scene is a hushed conversation on a shaded porch between Buzz and James.
The Boys In The Band, the first frank big studio film about uncloseted gays, is all about how the characters “became” gay, how they feel about being gay, and how they accept their gayness. Love! Valour! Compassion! has no angst over its characters’ sexuality, their gayness isn’t the issue. It is simply how they love, or fail to love each other, not who they love.
Mantello used the original Broadway cast with the exception of Lane and Heald, who were replaced here by Spinella and Alexander .
Although Love! Valour! Compassion! is nearly a quarter century old, it remains a touching, insightful film with themes we can all identify with: loneliness, jealousy, need, and generosity, which is why it’s a perfect movie for the quarantine.
Terrence McNally: Every Act Of Life, a documentary about McNally’s life and career can be found in the PBS archives as part of their American Masters series.